By Jean-Guy Carrier Source: China Daily Published: 2018-4-27
In the mid-19th century the European powers, the United States and Japan were dividing China into pieces, plunging its people into a period of calamity and humiliation that would last 100 years. Many countries in Asia suffered a similar fate.
At the start of the 21st century, it is China and more broadly Asia that are deciding the future configuration of global politics and the world economy. Such reversals are frequent in history. In the 5th Century BC the Greek historian Thucydides wrote on the confrontation between the Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens, which led to the defeat of the latter and the long-term decline of both. He captured an essential premise of Western thinking at the time when he wrote, “The strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
In China at the same time, the sage Laozi was writing: "The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them.” These contrasting views of the world persist today.
That China and its people now stand at the center of the current world order is a given. As recently as 2004, China’s economy was less than half that of the United States. Today, in terms of purchasing power parity, China has left the United States behind.
China’s win-win formula for the 21st Century is the Belt and Road initiative — the revival of ancient land and maritime routes from an ancient age of proto-globalization. Investments in BRI countries reached $1 trillion in 2016, building roads, telecommunications systems, ports, railroads, energy production and distribution facilities. The BRI could be the most important development project in human history, with benefits for the entire world.
Still, the BRI is the only global vision which is multilateral, inclusive and has backing from a country with both the will and means to enact it. China possesses at this historic moment the resolve to make a difference in the world, especially when it comes to raising millions out of poverty in “developing” countries and regions. However, China must do more to instill a more transparent force for rule of law, respect of contracts and of individual and corporate rights under the law. This is one weak link on the roads of the BRI and requires steady progress by China in building a rule of law.
Expectations are that China will continue strong support for multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization, UN development agencies and development banks. China is also expected to help introduce reforms into a multilateral system of governance currently based upon 20th Century models for governance, power, and financing.
China’s determination to move into the center of world diplomacy is a welcome development. There will continue to be opposition to China’s rise to its rightful place in the world and the global economy. In an age when trade wars have become possible again, China’s leadership will be tested.
Thucydides had a warning for leaders in his time which resonates today, when many countries are reacting defensively or resisting change to the old world order.
He wrote, “It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disasters to happen before discussing the matter.”
The age of power and the big stick wielded by “the strong” are pitted today against the concept of win-win, which in the words of Laozi “benefits all things and does not compete with them”. More than ever, a dialogue with all nations will enable confrontations to be peacefully solved.
Today, China is leading that discussion.
Jean-Guy Carrier is a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies.